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Blog post for Lewa

June 22, 2014

My name is Natalie Winmill and as part of my master’s qualification I will be spending two months collecting elephant movement data on Lewa Wildlife Conservancy. My master’s course, MRes Wildlife Conservation, is a partnership of the University of Southampton and Marwell Wildlife and was designed specifically to train the next generation of conservation biologists.  

My research project is based on elephants and their movement in Lewa’s elephant corridor. The entrance to the corridor lies within the Ngare Ndare Forest on the southern side of Lewa, goes through the Mount Kenya region and finishes on Mount Kenya.

The corridor runs between two farms and is fenced to protect the crops, local people and wildlife. East Africa’s first elephant underpass was built to allow for safe passage of elephants as part of the corridor crosses a major highway. The corridor has been a renowned success to date however it is not known to what extent it is facilitating the mixing of the Mount Kenya elephant population with that of Lewa and Samburuland to the North. The corridor was built to connect the Samburu-Laikipia population of 7,500 elephants with the Mount Kenya population of 2,000 elephants and to improve the genetic status of the entire elephant population by re-establishing the historic migration route. 

The corridor’s elephant traffic movement has been monitored at each end since its opening in 2011. Elephant numbers are recorded entering and exiting at each end of the corridor; however the numbers do not equate suggesting not all elephants move through the entire corridor. Elephants could potentially be using this area as extended habitat instead. This corridor is essential to the long term survival of the species in this region by maintaining genetic diversity and relieving pressure on resources within the conservancy, but only if the elephants traverse the entire corridor. I will be assessing whether the corridor is working to the best of its ability in facilitating the movement of elephants through this region and mixing populations. If this is not the case, I will be evaluating the corridor in terms of percent vegetation, slope angle and distance from water sources, which may influence whether the elephants travel through it. I will be making recommendations to improve the corridor which will allow it to achieve its full potential. 

Camera trap data, historical and current, will be used to track elephant movement patterns. I will be working closely with Lewa’s research team to provide an up to date evaluation of the corridor and its function to the elephants. Alongside the current corridor monitoring, I will be individually identifying elephants using their ear patterns and tusk shape. An elephant identification database will be developed using these camera trap photos and local knowledge on Lewa’s elephant population, which can be used in the future monitoring.

I have previously stayed at the Marwell Research Camp on Lewa as part of the MRes Wildlife Conservation. It was a great insight into life as a field biologist and amazing to work and live amongst the wildlife that I am trying to conserve. I cannot wait to be back there as part of the Lewa research team. I feel privileged to be working with the experienced and dedicated staff and for the incredible opportunity of observing these remarkable creatures. I will be gaining invaluable fieldwork experience and contributing to the monitoring and management of magnificent animals on Lewa.